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Behind the Scenes of ‘WrestleMania 36,’ WWE’s Most Unusual Yet

A spoiler-free look at WWE’s decision to make WrestleMania a two-night affair based out of its Performance Center in Orlando—and how ESPN almost factored into the biggest wrestling event of the year.

WrestleMania 36 is a story of control. And right now, Vince McMahon has lost control of his company to the unlikeliest of opponents.

The coronavirus has effectively halted professional sports around the globe, and instead of performing in front of an audience of over 70,000 people from all over the world, WrestleMania 36 is taking place in WWE’s workout facility. Who could have ever imagined a virus would be the biggest threat to McMahon’s throne?

Although you haven’t heard the word “coronavirus” said on WWE programming, McMahon is quite familiar with its impact and reach. The virus is claiming lives, shutting down schools and businesses, and changing the way people live. It has also altered the way business is conducted. From a financial standpoint, it has wreaked endless havoc on McMahon’s empire. Combining the loss of the live gate from WrestleMania with McMahon’s XFL canceling the remainder of its season, in addition to losing the gate from every single WWE show scheduled to run—Raw, SmackDown, NXT, and even the Hall of Fame ceremony—amounts to a hit for WWE’s bottom line.

There was no possible way to hold WrestleMania in its original venue, which was Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium. Part of McMahon’s success as a businessman has been his stubbornness, and staying at Raymond James was at one point a consideration. McMahon pivoted, however, for reasons outside of his control. First was the state government. It is hard for anyone to argue that it is a good look for the state of Florida to hold the “Showcase of Immortals” with pyro, pomp, and circumstance amidst a pandemic. Second was aesthetics. Performing in front of an empty Performance Center is a challenging viewpoint; this would have been magnified had the show taken place in a massive football stadium.

So McMahon moved the show to the Performance Center. Canceling the event would run in direct opposition to all of his principles and sensibilities, which is likely the reason WWE is a prime candidate to hold the first major event with fans once the United States resumes its more traditional pace of daily life.

Postponing WrestleMania seemed like the most logical option, but it is also a logistical nightmare. The remainder of the year is already booked and, with more people being tested for the coronavirus and the number of infected continuing to rise, it is impossible to pin down an exact date when government restrictions will be lifted. That is why McMahon made the decision he did, which is to control the environment he can control.

In this current environment, moving WrestleMania to the Performance Center has some advantages. WWE owns the facility—remember, McMahon built WWE into a global conglomerate with a tight control of his business—and Orlando is a travel hub, which is especially important with so many moving pieces. It is obviously less than ideal, but this is an unprecedented situation, extending far deeper than WWE.

The change of venue wasn’t the only adjustment. For the first time ever WrestleMania will be a two-night event, beginning this Saturday. The idea of a two-night show was discussed last year for WrestleMania 35 but never gained traction as a realistic possibility. There is wisdom in breaking up what has evolved into an incredibly long show into two sittings. WrestleMania is available on the WWE Network. Subscribers will gain access to the show as part of the $9.99 monthly fee, and new subscribers receive the first month free. This adds pressure for WWE to perform a highly acclaimed show on its first night, increasing subscriptions for night two. In a deal that doesn’t hurt WWE, the show is also available on the FOX Sports and FOX NOW apps, as well as FITE TV, for $59.99 and as a pay-per-view.

Broadcast rights for WrestleMania, WWE’s crown jewel, are especially interesting. Airing the show on ESPN would have made sense, but WWE executives undoubtedly questioned whether that would have led to a mass exodus of subscribers on the WWE Network. And existing relationships are also important.

WWE airs weekly on Fox and USA Network, and those networks—Fox in particular—were less than enthused that WWE made a deal to air three encore presentations of past WrestleManias on ESPN. This sheds light to the seemingly odd choice to have SmackDown and Raw air past ’Mania matches that were set to air only days later on ESPN. Both the John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt affair from WrestleMania 30 and WrestleMania 32’s Triple H-Roman Reigns match aired on FOX on Friday then again on ESPN only two nights later. The main event from WrestleMania 35, featuring Becky Lynch, Ronda Rousey and Charlotte Flair, was shown this past Monday on Raw before it is set to air on ESPN Sunday afternoon. Fox anticipated those encore presentations would belong on FS1, but ESPN gets significantly more viewers, so WWE made the decision to air there. McMahon had control to leverage the best deal, which he was certainly entitled to do. WWE and Fox recently announced an agreement to air one-hour versions of past WrestleManias on FS1.

The WrestleMania discussions with ESPN also got serious a year ago. ESPN was in deep discussion with WWE last year about having a desk at WrestleMania and airing WrestleMania SportsCenter breaks all weekend, but the talks died the week before WrestleMania 35.

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A sticking point was McMahon did not want to reveal the behind-the-scenes aspects of WWE, including moments after the show, which makes sense because of the history of secrecy in pro wrestling. Of course, all that could have been acquired for an astronomical price, but the footage is far more valuable to WWE than it ever would be to ESPN.

A potential partnership for this year included airing WrestleMania 36 on the ESPN+ pay-per-view service, similar to the manner in which the UFC is covered, until the coronavirus ended those discussions. ESPN did not want to spend such a high price on any event stuck in uncertainty. Had WWE sold the pay-per-view piece to ESPN+ and reconfigured the Network, perhaps this could have been a real windfall for the company. Instead, it pivoted its strategy with access to the WWE Network to lead to more subscriptions. WrestleMania has always been the biggest reason people add the WWE Network, and in addition to television rights, it marks another guaranteed source of income in an uncertain time for WWE. But one thing is certain: ESPN is interested in being in the WWE business.

There are other elements to WrestleMania also out of McMahon’s control, though he is doing what he can to combat that. The priority is ensuring WrestleMania is presented in the best possible form. But since filming began last week, which included overnight recordings from 11 p.m.—5 a.m., leaked results have been a possibility. Considering WrestleMania is a cultural event, spoilers have the potential to significantly diminish interest and profitability. So how does McMahon prevent loose lips from sinking his ship?

Leaking information is a fireable offense, Sports Illustrated has learned. Along with McMahon, Kevin Dunn, Paul Heyman and Bruce Prichard, there are only a finite number of people present for each filming session. The majority of the agents are not present for the matches. The agents that are local to Florida include Adam Pearce, “Road Dogg” Jesse James, Jamie Noble, and Shawn Michaels—and they are the unlikeliest of candidates to leak match results. Lead broadcaster Michael Cole gets no benefit from leaking results, nor do any of the other members of the broadcast team. The production team is incredibly talented in terms of filming, lighting, editing, and all other parts of their job, and it is a crew that values its job more than feeding info to reporters looking to break news. And the wrestlers would be unwise to destroy their standing in the company by leaking results.

The biggest concern of all is health. If someone were to have transmitted the virus among talent or staff, that would forever stain WWE’s signature show. And the company was dealt a massive blow when Roman Reigns, a two-time leukemia survivor with young children at home, opted out. But WWE is bigger than any one star, and as long as McMahon has control, the show must (and will) go on.

WWE’s mantra of “putting smiles on faces” is a legitimate goal within the company, especially for the performers—but the executives know that those smiles also need to be present on the faces of stockholders. Given that the United States economy is currently in shambles, it is no surprise that WWE’s stock price has also taken a hit.

WWE stock has been struggling since January, but that was set to change once the company hit WrestleMania. The shows in Tampa would have had large attendance, and merchandise numbers would have soared. But all that was lost, and losing WrestleMania would have been an even bigger blow. An outstanding showing at WrestleMania will not fix the stock price, as this is a nightmare situation, but McMahon is carrying on to show the unrelenting nature of his operation. Yet at a time when he needed to set the stock back in place, he instead is faced with a global pandemic. WWE can still deliver an amazing show, which is always good PR, and the possibility exists for embracing the no-crowd element and making captivating cinematic matches, perhaps even with an “Attitude Era” vibe, to give WrestleMania a uniquely compelling feel.

Even with a tenuous grasp on his company due to the coronavirus, McMahon does have the potential to please the vast majority of his audience. He employs the best roster in all of professional wrestling, and the decision made to tape the show adds the potential for cinematic flavor not always on display in pro wrestling.

The restraints are off in a way they have never been on the WrestleMania stage. A “Firefly Fun House” match has new potential without the confines of a live match in front of 70,000 people. WWE is not playing to the in-arena crowd. The Undertaker-AJ Styles “Boneyard” match is another opportunity to create something totally different that WWE has never before presented on this grand a stage. A positive for the show is its possibility for innovation, both big and small, built out of this necessity in time.

This show will be viewed by many out of work and stuck at home as a breath of fresh air. And it brings with it a pre-Internet era feeling of question marks and anticipation, as the show already took place but the world waits to learn the results of everything that happened behind closed sets. The story of WrestleMania 36 will make for an incredible documentary, likely available sooner than we think on the WWE Network.

But for now, McMahon continues to wrestle against an invisible foe. A man that has control over every entity in his empire cannot contain this virus, and all the traditional WrestleMania gains are gone. Perhaps this is the last great battle for the 75-year-old Chairman of the Board. Or merely a continuation of a pattern he built. Either way, as always, the show must go on.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.